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Lawyers Heed Call to Volunteer Pro Bono Service

By Lisa R. Bliss, Litigation News Associate Editor – April 8, 2009

A call for Section of Litigation members to assist at least one pro bono client this year is receiving favorable response and providing lawyers an opportunity to serve during the current economic downturn.

National Day of Service
Following President Barack Obama’s call for Americans to participate in a National Day of Service, Section of Litigation Chair Robert L. Rothman, Atlanta, GA, challenged Section members to identify a legal aid organization in their community and offer to handle at least one new pro bono matter involving a low-income person faced with the loss of a basic human need, such as housing, health, safety, sustenance, or child custody.

The ABA has since urged all lawyers to join the effort and to commit to serving their communities throughout 2009 and beyond. “We view the national call for volunteers to dovetail perfectly with a lawyer’s obligation to do pro bono service,” says Mark Schickman, San Francisco, chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.

Response of the Legal Community
Lawyers from all regions are accepting pro bono cases in connection with the call to service. For example, Gary K. McKenzie, Baton Rouge, LA, volunteered to take up to four new pro bono bankruptcy cases from the Baton Rouge Bar Association Pro Bono Project. Rees T. Evans, Oklahoma City, OK, contacted the pro bono coordinator for Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma to request a new case. Ruben Pagan, Seattle, a recent law school graduate, has contacted Attorneys Assisting Citizen-Soldiers and Families and offered to get involved. “As a total novice, I am approaching this opportunity with some trepidation, but if I can help just one person that would have otherwise gone without adequate legal representation, then the experience will be worth it,” Pagan says.

Reflecting on the positive response to his call for pro bono service, Rothman notes that “pro bono has never been needed more than today.”

“Lawyers have friends, neighbors, and colleagues who are losing their jobs and their houses. Providing pro bono representation is a unique opportunity to provide help in troubled times,” Rothman says.

Rise in Pro Bono Activity
A recent ABA survey,  “Supporting Justice II: A Report on the Pro Bono Work of America’s Lawyers,” [PDF] released by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, reports a rise in pro bono numbers, both in terms of the number of individuals providing service and the number of hours individuals contribute. Approximately 73 percent of lawyers are providing some amount of pro bono service, up from 66 percent reported in 2005.

Impact of the Economy
Funding for organizations that serve the legal needs of low-income people has decreased, making the need for pro bono services all the more acute, says Lisa Wood, Boston, MA, cochair of the Section’s Pro Bono and Public Interest Committee.

“Legal services organizations were not able to handle even half the needs of the poor when they were funded at higher levels,” notes Wood. “The current pressure on state budgets and the reduction in IOLTA funds has reduced important sources of funding for organizations that provide legal services to the poor.”

Wood says that the current economic crisis provides an opportune time for lawyers to do something to try to help, regardless of their own circumstances. “Some people may feel anxious about having more time on their hands,” she notes, but serving others is uplifting and will make a difference.

Pro Bono Training
“Lawyers do not need special training or expertise to take on a pro bono case,” notes Dale Weppner, St. Louis, cochair of the Section’s Pro Bono and Public Interest Committee.

“With prep time, anyone can go out and give basic advice to a person who is being evicted, or having problems paying his medical bills,” says Weppner. “You do not have to be a specialist to advise people on their basic rights.”

Where some training is needed, community pro bono organizations or legal services programs may provide it. For example, volunteer lawyer Jennifer C. Argabright, Washington, D.C., reported that she signed up for the Healthcare Access Project training through the District of Columbia Bar Association Pro Bono Training Program. Argabright will be trained to handle cases involving consumer access to health care coverage through public benefits programs or private insurance, and enforcement of consumer protections under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act [PDF].

Law Firm Resources
“In light of the economic downturn, some law firms may have ‘excess capacity’ in staff right now and could use that talent to provide support for people who need legal assistance,” Weppner notes. Likewise, Rothman commends law firms that are underwriting placement of associates within legal services organizations, sometimes at reduced salaries, rather than eliminating jobs entirely.

Rothman hopes that lawyers will continue to respond to his call for pro bono service all year long, and hopes that the Section will participate annually in the Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service. “Sometimes all it takes is a little reminder that there is need in their communities, and lawyers will respond,” he says.

Keywords: Pro bono, National Day of Service, community service


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